It’s no secret that many salespeople don’t know what procurement people want, and vice versa. Wouldn’t it be simpler if each side could just ask the other what they need? Selling and buying are all about building relationships and trust with one another, something that our guest today has been doing for 37 years with Exxon Mobil. Join Victoria Meyer as she talks to retired commercial expert Marty Levine about his career and experience with Exxon Mobil. Marty took on sales, sales management, market development, and several leadership roles in procurement with Exxon Mobil. Learn what sales and procurement need so everyone can show up as a hero. Discover the importance of strategies and teaching the future generation of the business. Start building trusting relationships today!
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Building Relationships: Understanding The Sales And Procurement Process With Marty Levine
I am speaking with Marty Levine. Marty is an expert in B2B Commercial Strategies and Negotiations. He spent 37 years at ExxonMobil and has retired. He brings a wealth of commercial experience in both sales and marketing as well as procurement. Marty and I met across the negotiating table several years ago when he was with Univation and doing licensing, and I was setting up the polyethylene business for Shell and negotiating license agreements. I know his insights and expertise well. We’re going to have a great conversation. Marty, welcome to the show.
Victoria, thanks. I appreciate the opportunity. You’re doing a great thing with this show. You pull out some very interesting insights and personal stories that people can grab onto and be inspired by.
Thank you. I appreciate that. I’m hoping to get inspired and I know that people are going to get inspired by you, Marty. What’s your origin story? What brought you into the world of chemicals, and what brought you to ExxonMobil?
I always tell people I have a boring resume. I had two jobs in my life. I worked in the lumber yard and I worked for ExxonMobil for 37 years. I got out of college at Georgia Tech with a Civil Engineering degree. I did engineering things in Exxon’s facility in Baytown. I must have caught the eye of one of our sales directors at the time and he determined I could probably do sales. I went into initial sales roles. I did a lot of travel back when you did seven segments a week on an airplane.
I was terrible at sales. I didn’t want to do it. I was like, “How did I get stuck with this thing?” Gradually, over time, I stuck with it and got better. At some point in time, I decided that I like being at the tip of the spear, where the money comes in and the product goes up. I enjoyed those jobs. I’ve done management jobs before in the company in my career, but I liked the individual contributor role. I enjoyed that, so I spent most of my career doing those things.
I went on in various sales roles, big territories, and key accounts. I did some sales management and dealt with pretty much every market you could think of in the polymers industry and everything. I did some marketing management and market development work. I also did licensing when I met you for the first time. Finally, I wound up in procurement. It gave me an interesting perspective.
You’ve been in commercial roles for a long time. What’s different now versus when you started? You’ve had the opportunity to see an entire evolution across the industry and across the way business is done. What’s striking to you about that?
Much has changed. When I got into commercial roles back in the late ’80s, there was no internet. Technology has changed a lot. I used to lug around when I would travel 20 pounds of computer bag, phone, and recorder. I had a backpack. There are so many things to carry around. Now, pretty much everything is on my phone. I remember when I saw the first fax machine, I was like, “This is as far as it can ever go.”
Now, you can’t even find a fax machine!
They don’t even exist anymore. People don’t know what they even are. People don’t know what a floppy disc is either anymore. You get off an airplane, go to the airport, run down the jetway, and get out to the bank of phones out there because all the salespeople are trying to grab all the phones. One thing that has changed is the amount of information available. It used to be you get these reports on the industry mailed to you once a month or once a week, and now there’s so much information, and it’s continuously available. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s not right because it has been put together so quickly. It hasn’t been vetted very well. You have so much information that you have to triangulate to make sure you get to the truth.
Does it make it better or worse? From your perspective, is it easier?
It’s a blessing and a curse. You have to make sure that the information you’re getting is right. I always say you have to develop information into insight that drives action. If you’re not trying to drive action from information and trying to get insight, it’s just a hobby. It’s a blessing and a curse because you have so much more. It’s a cursed thing that you have to make sure it’s right. It’s also true that if you’re not using it, you can be sure your competition is. You have to make sure you’re availing yourself to stay up to date relative to your competition.You have to develop information into insight that drives action. Click To Tweet
The amazing thing with change is how we contact people. We used to be all over the phone or face to face. Now, we’ve gotten to where we’re more comfortable with non-face-to-face stuff, texting, emailing, etc., but that has changed. There are no more three-martini lunches like they were back in the day when I got started. The other thing that has changed in the ’90s that a lot of people now maybe don’t recognize is the whole business-to-business marketing science in a sense was developed. It didn’t exist much before. The whole notion of value-selling came of age in the ’90s. There were classes and things that we went to talk about this new science that was around.
Moving to the value versus pure transactional sale.
People had consumer marketing forever like selling coffee and cigarettes and whatever else, but business-to-business marketing came to life in the ’90s. The other thing that has changed is now, there are university degrees you can get in supply chain and selling, even the University of Houston has a selling program. These programs didn’t exist 25 or 30 years ago. Those are some changes right there.
It was all on-the-job training, bringing people in and training them up in their way. You talk about the fact that B2B marketing did not exist until the ’90s when we think about it from a chemical perspective and B2B industries more broadly. There’s still a certain amount of immaturity across many companies now in B2B marketing and value-selling. There’s a reliance still on the old “pick up the phone, if you know who I am and know who you are, we can do business together.”
We’re seeing this change now. We’re even at a tipping point when we think about what’s needed from a commercial perspective or marketing perspective to meet the requirements of today and to meet the requirements of the next generation, and how they are willing to work and what they view as being a successful way to work.
I agree. To me, value is something that both a buyer and a seller have. You don’t enjoy your own value. Somebody else does. Oftentimes, as you suggested, sellers don’t understand the value they bring to a situation because they don’t truly understand what the customer’s needs are relative to what they have to offer. They don’t understand sometimes what their values are relative to their competition, which is incredibly important to know.
Finally, on the procurement side, oftentimes, procurement organizations have no idea about the many sources of value that they bring to a seller. It could be in promotions or making them a better supplier by holding their feet to the fire sometimes. Those are all valuable things that a buyer brings to the party that sometimes are not fully recognized.
That’s a good point. You spent 2/3 of your career on the selling and marketing side of the house and then moved to procurement in the last decades or so. What was the surprise? When you walked into your first procurement role, what surprised you about it in terms of either how it was done or what they did or didn’t know? What were the big a-has?
One of the big a-has was I knew a lot about selling, processes, how to understand the value, strategic accounts, etc. What I didn’t know was what procurement folks did, what they thought about this language of procurement, category plans and category management, when you use a bid and when you don’t, and all this stuff. One thing that’s very true of procurement that I figured out right away is we have a lot more stuff to keep up with typically than a salesperson. A salesperson has one product line that they’re selling, typically.Procurement people have many more things to keep up with than a sales force. Click To Tweet
In procurement, particularly, the category manager has a dozen different commodities they’re overseeing, which have nothing to do with each other. They simply have a lot more to keep up with, so that’s a change. One thing I realized early on is that to me, everyone is always selling. I never differentiated it. One party is selling goods for money. The other party is selling money for goods.
Ultimately, we all sell. Sales and procurement people spend a lot of time selling internally as do salespeople spend a lot of time selling internally, which is a good skill to get what they need to be done. I’ve learned there are a lot of mysteries between the two. Salespeople have perceptions about procurement people, and procurement people have perceptions about salespeople. Some of them are not very good. They just don’t understand each other.
That’s a good segue. That’s one of the things that you’re focusing on right now. I know that the latter part of your time at Exxon is helping companies and commercial leaders demystify procurement and demystify sales. What do you mean by demystifying? What’s the actual mystery here that we’re talking about?
One thing I did all through my career is I’ve written stuff down. I’ve written lots of stuff down about things that I realized are true. I’ve kept up with these things. When I was in sales and marketing, I wrote down a lot of things about how to deal with commercial matters. One thing that’s very important is for people to spend a little bit of time in both procurement and sales because you learn a little bit from each other.
I don’t think that salespeople understand the processes that procurement people go through, and procurement people don’t understand the processes that salespeople go through. Since we’re all selling to the degree that you can understand what the other person across the desk is going through, then you can help influence that process if you understand the process. If you can influence the process better than the other party can, then that gives you a leg up on either getting or maintaining the business.
How do you understand the process? I think this continues to be a mystery. Can you share some of your insights or maybe even your model when you think about the whole demystification of this and how to figure out what procurement is looking for?
For instance, one thing is to do a procurement job for a while. That’s the easiest thing, but just ask questions. I always find that people ultimately like to talk about what they do. They like to talk about themselves. A lot of it is just asking questions. A question I would always ask somebody either when I was in sales or procurement was, “What do I need to do to make you a hero?” It’s an open-ended question. People will then begin to divulge and talk a bit about, “If you could do this, it would help.” I say, “Why is that? What are the processes you have to use to get this thing done?”
A lot of it is just asking questions and showing interest in the person across the desk and showing them that, “I got a job to do here. I need to get the sale or buy the thing. At the same time, we’re going to be doing this thing for a while together. Let’s try to help each other out a bit.” There’s nothing wrong with doing that. That’s something I’ve got very good at over the years.
When I was early in commercial roles, I thought it was a win-lose situation or that it was a competition for me to get the best deal. You were in competition to get yourself the best deal. Over time, you realize that you’re doing business with this company and with these individuals for a very long time or decades in some cases.
You’re not buying a car.
Exactly. Figuring out that whole cooperation and collaboration, and still being true to what your remit is for your company, and not losing sight of what’s important, who you’re working for, and how you make your company successful. Together, you can come up with better solutions if you have a bit more transparency and a bit more collaboration, and ask some of these questions to understand that.
It’s like salespeople and procurement people are playing the game Battleship. You had your little screen and you would move a pen and they move a pen, and you sink the other guy’s ship or whatever. There is a lot of it that goes on and frankly, it’s inefficient. As a salesperson, you think about the amount of time you spend trying to understand the organization, how they make decisions, what their needs are, and all these kinds of things that you need to do to develop your value offer and to bring the best of what your company can offer the customer. If they would just tell you that as opposed to making you hunt around for it all the time, it would make things a lot more efficient.
You mentioned being more transparent. You’ve got to build up trust with people. Trust is the fulcrum of which any collaborative type of business has to go on. That’s an art form that some people can do well. It’s to build and maintain trust. With trust, you think about how many mitigations you put in place in a contract or whatever to avoid risks, but if you trust somebody or the other company, and you know that they’re not going to do bad to you, then you don’t have to have all that expensive stuff. You don’t have to have all that inventory or all those extra things that cost money because you trust the other party. It drives down costs. Trust and cost offset each other.
That’s also part of the value equation. You and I have talked about where value is created in commercial relationships, whether from a supplier side or a seller side. Reducing friction is one of those things. Creating more certainty and that certainty is trust. That holds a lot of weight in a negotiation. You might think you have the best deal or the best offer, but if the counterparty can’t trust that you’re going to deliver and do the things that you’re promising to do, you may or may not win the deal, or it comes with a lot more handcuffs and provisions to make it more guarded.
As a seller, having certainty that you’re going to have a stream of business for the next few years or whatever means a lot. That’s one last thing you have to worry about. Sometimes it’s giving commitment, which there’s risk involved, but that is worth a lot. In some cases, if you’ve got a supplier who is your favorite and you’re probably going to try to buy for them anyway, giving them a commitment based on the trust that you have developed between the two of you is essentially an elegant negotiable. It didn’t cost you anything to do that.
To them, it gave them certainty and surety of business. They can go to their boss and say, “I got their business for the next three years.” It made them a hero. This whole relationship thing is on three levels. There’s the industry level. Certain industries have a personality. Each company has a personality and a certain set of things they’re trying to do. Finally, the individuals you’re dealing with have their own needs. You have to look at these relationships on three levels.
I agree. That’s a great point. I used to map and I still do it today. Mapping out where the individual needs are versus the company needs versus what’s going on in the industry is critical because it helps you be creative in finding solutions that work. What was the most challenging or fun negotiation that you faced?
The one you and I did.
That was fun. What’s fun about that one was I was new to the job. I didn’t know what I was doing, but we had a strong team. As I said, I like to be an individual contributor, but in the case of licensing, it was a team approach. I was the quarterback, but then I had good technical people who understood the products, marketing, etc. It was a fun thing to do. Probably, one of the most fun ones I had was going out to a potential client that everybody says, “They’re never going to use our technology.” Over a period of a few years and a lot of negotiating, trips, and strange meals in Asia, we got the business. It was something that you did from the ground up.
A lot of selling in the chemical space is repeat selling, but you’re maintaining relationships. You asked the question, what’s the most fun thing? It’s getting a new client on board for a major project that everybody says is not going to happen. It was thrilling. The other thing I find thrilling is you have these customers and accounts where their relationship is screwed up. Something went wrong. Someone went sideways. There’s a lot of lack of trust. Something I was pretty good at over time was rebuilding trust and relationships. That’s a thrilling thing to do. Usually, it’s just a misunderstanding. It’s not that people did something wrong. You rebuild it. That’s what I found to be a fun thing to do.
That’s fun and it’s critical. These relationships are long. Even in my time at Shell and Clariant, some of the longstanding customer-supplier relationships we had were broken at times. Yet neither party could afford for them to be broken because you need each other.
Sometimes they don’t even know why they’re broken. They’re like, “I don’t know. Something happened six years ago.” “What was it?” Nobody remembers.
Maybe it was a prior business leader, hiring people in the role, or a misunderstanding.
Occasionally, and this happens every once in a while, you run across a person who had a bad character. They just do. That’s going to make a mess of things. It’s going to happen. You got to be careful with trusting those people, but you’re going to run across them every once in a while.
Sometimes you have to do business with those people. How do you deal with that? I’m still learning sometimes. I’m still learning sometimes. Give me the Marty wisdom.
Generally, what I tried to do, at least in the selling role and in the procurement role as well, is I simply work around them. I had this thing I called lighting fires. It was my little terminology, but I would work with the technology person, the manufacturing person, the finance person or whoever, and build my case with all these other people. The particular individual could be procurement or whatever who was not worthy of trust. Suddenly, they had to do what I wanted them to do. You sold around them. That irritates some people, but he’s not dealing fairly to start with, so I’m sorry it made you upset. Interestingly, these people won’t last very long anyway.You can simply work around the people you don't trust in your business. They usually don't last long, anyway. Click To Tweet
That’s right. They’re the ones that maybe bounce from place to place or move out of a commercial role because they’re not suited necessarily.
People figure them out pretty soon.
In your final role at ExxonMobil, you advised commercial staff on strategies for negotiations and commercial opportunities. That was a role that you created. You lobbied to create that role and make it happen and get yourself in that position. Why? What do you see as the benefit of doing that either for yourself or for other late-career professionals?
In the case of my ex-employer from which I retired, they already do this thing in other parts of the company and technology. The upstream had a good system of what we called technical professionals. Some of the commercial roles weren’t as strong. We had some people already in place. In my case, I’m going to retire pretty soon and I know all this stuff. I said, “Why don’t we put a position where I can use all that information and knowledge to put in place better processes and expectations, do mentoring and training, etc.?” We started it. Unfortunately, the pandemic occurred. In a sense, it called upon my talents a bit more perhaps.
People were in uncharted territory. One thing that I always tell some other colleagues who have my level of experience is, “One thing you may have noticed is you walk into a completely jacked up situation and you know exactly what to do within a few minutes of asking a few questions.” The trick is then to help the other people get to that point without telling them what to do.
You lead them there and they learn the thought process. They learn how to frame up the issue and throw out the extraneous information that doesn’t matter. How to get to the core thing is going to have the most leverage to affect the issue. That’s something that you learn in time, but that’s also something you can impart to people who are less far along in their career so that they can get a leg up to be able to do that earlier on.
It was a great thing that they did. They went ahead and named some more positions similar to mine. It’s a great way to build skills in the organization. It’s also a way to pass things along generationally. To me, this is an important thing now as we are going through The Great Resignation, the people coming and going. Organizations are losing organizational knowledge and wisdom. How do you maintain that? You can’t put stuff on SharePoint. You have to have a person or people who are keepers of the flame. These kinds of roles can help do that.
It makes me think of what we talk about cultures that have a written history versus an oral history. The reality is for business, commercial roles and others, you have to have a combination of the two. You can write this stuff down and then leave it to the individual to interpret. You interpret based on your own lens and experience, but when you have the coaching, mentoring, and the sage helping you understand what it means, you get the best of both worlds.
It is the lyrics to the music. It’s both coming together. I always encourage people to put together good strategies. When you have strategies, you can then adjust them as time goes on. That’s an important thing. I find that a lot of people don’t understand the importance of strategy or even what it is.
Let’s talk about that because we’ve talked about the fact that you’ve got your own framework for strategy. What is the strategy? Why don’t people understand it? What do you think of it as you start talking about putting it together?
A lot of people start at the goals and objectives, or they put together a plan and they stop there, “We got a strategy.” I’ve seen this all over the industry, not one company in particular. Strategies have to start with a set of objectives or goals that are time-based, “We want to be here in X number of years.” You then recognize there are problems or an issue for you getting there. A strategy then is all about how you’re going to address those issues and roadblocks that are going to prevent you from meeting your objectives.Strategy is all about how you're going to address issues that are preventing you from meeting your objectives. Click To Tweet
A strategy then also lays out who’s going to do what, when, where, how, and then finally, what we’re not going to do, and how we know we won. To me, those are the elements of a strategy. A strategy is a cyclical thing. You start it, work it, improve it, and then you go on and on. That’s the good thing about having one. Now that you have one, you can build that as a basis for doing better. That’s my understanding of strategy.
You would help people build the strategies around products, markets or what?
You could say it’s a strategy around the whole business in a sense or the whole business goal. It’s a strategy around whether we want to grow our position in a market segment, if we want to grow our position with a certain customer, or if we want to grow our position with a certain supplier. You could build one around any number of things. To me, a strategy ultimately gets built around what I tend to call the X-axis. It’s the one thing that has the most leverage that is going to help you get and meet those objectives. Those obstacles are those things that prevent you from using that leverage. How are you going to work around them or through them to meet your objective? That’s the strategy.
You’ve left the hallowed grounds at ExxonMobil, and you’re moving on to the next phase of life and career. What’s your focus here for the future?
I’ve had a few months of rest. I had some knee surgery, so that laid me low for a bit. I’m interested in getting back into helping companies do things better in terms of their sales ability, procurement ability, marketing ability, and their ability to develop a good strategy. Over the past few months, I’ve talked to people in the industry like yourself to understand what’s needed out there and try to get some ideas about what I could try to apply elsewhere. I’m in the midst of forming a little consultancy. I’m calling it Marty Levine Commercial. I didn’t get creative with the naming. That’s what I’d like to do because I find this thrilling to try to help people do a better job at being at the tip of the spear.
That’s awesome. You’re going to do well with that. You’re also involved in ISM. Can you tell us about that?
I was in ISM a bit before I retired and the pandemic messed things up. I’ve been invited back by them here in the Houston Chapter to help in an advisory capacity. I’ve started that, but it’s a good organization. It’s important, particularly for younger employees to get involved in this thing because it helps them see what other companies are up to in helping people benchmark, and helps you build a network. It’s good to be involved again.
For those who don’t know, what is ISM?
It’s the Institute for Supply Management.
It is procurement and supply chain focused.
It tends to be a little heavier on procurement as best as I can tell.
What advice would you give to a new college grad or a young career person that’s entering a commercial role in chemicals?
When I got into this commercial role, I was told, “You’re going to go do this.” A lot of these questions I hadn’t thought about. The benefit of age has allowed me to come up with a few things that work. First off, be willing to be both on the buying and the selling side. Some people just want to be salespeople, but you ought to try procurement for a bit. Some people want to be procurement people, so try selling for a bit. You do demystify the other party and you make yourself a better buyer or seller, whichever one you happen to be.
Spend some time in the operations of your company. Understand the value of things that you’re selling, how they’re made, or how the things you’re buying are being used. Particularly, in procurement jobs, because you have all these things you’ve got to oversee, you have to be able to prioritize and figure out where the most bang for the bucket is.
Deliberately build a network. We mentioned ISM as a good way of doing that. Be open about training and mentorship, and boldly seek it out. In my last position, I had a few early career people who actively sought me out. That was great because I enjoyed working with them. They’re very smart, intelligent, and capable people. It speaks well for them that they want to do better.
The other thing I always tell people is to be themselves. In commercial roles, you have to be yourself. If you try to be somebody else, then people are going to see that you’re not being genuine. You’re basically lying and won’t be trusted. For many years, I was trying to be somebody else. As irritating as Marty can be, I decided to be Marty and I did a lot better after that.
Figure out your own style. Figure out what you’re good at and try to do more of it. You can work on your weaknesses all day long. Some of them you’ll never get better. I’ll never be a good golfer. I’ve tried. There are some things I’m good at. I tried to find opportunities to do those things a lot. That’s a good way to live. If you want to get an advanced degree, do it early before you get mortgages and kids, and things like that.
Finally, a bit about me, don’t live to work. Work to live. Have some interest outside of work for crying out loud. A lot of people I see don’t have that. I’ve always had a lot of them. My wife and I have an art business on the side. I do photography and astronomy. I like to read and write. All those things make you a better professional because oftentimes, you can’t work something out at work. When you’re out goofing around with a camera or whatever, you get the solution. Sometimes you have to get offline to get the solution. Have a life outside of work.
That’s awesome. Marty, thank you. This has been great. I’m glad we got a chance to connect. We’ve had many conversations, so it’s fun to memorialize it. Thanks for joining us.
I love to do it again sometime. Thank you.
Thanks, everyone. Keep liking, following, and sharing the show. We’ll talk to you again next time.
- Marty Levine – LinkedIn
About Marty Levine
Martin (Marty)Levine, a native of Georgia, earned a Bachelor of Civil Engineering from The Georgia Institute of Technology in 1985 and began his 37-year career with ExxonMobil (then Exxon Chemical).
After initial positions in engineering, project management and scheduling, Marty began his commercial career with a sales role in Exxon Chemical and progressed through multiple sales territories, key account management, sales management, market development and management, technology licensing and several leadership roles in procurement. These roles enabled him to work with hundreds of counterparties in multiple industries and in dozens of countries. Internally he participated in or lead development of business strategies, commercial methodologies and change management projects.
His recognized commercial prowess and experience enabled him to develop a new role as Senior Principal in procurement during the final years of his career. This role as an internal consultant enabled Marty to work across the entire enterprise. He developed and delivered training for both sales and procurement staff, advised leadership and supported numerous significant deals.
Marty retired in May 2022 and is presently forming a consultancy – Marty Levine, Commercial – where he plans to offer his significant expertise to firms who need to develop their sales, marketing, procurement and overall business strategy.
Marty regularly shares his wisdom on LinkedIn and has recently taken on an advisory position with the Houston Chapter of the Institute of Supply Management. He and his wife Cindy share interest in an art business where he markets his photography.
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